The counselor listened intently as I shared my family history and then commented that she thought my dad did the best he could with what he was given. I asked, “You mean, you just don’t think he had the tools in his toolbox?” She leaned forward and answered, “No! I don’t think your dad had a frickin’ toolbox!”
My daddy only had three-and-a-half fingers on his right hand. When he was 18 months old his older two brothers gave him a ride on a rotary lawnmower, and his fingers got chopped off. The middle finger either wasn’t found or wasn’t able to be reattached; I heard the story told both ways. The three little boys were left totally unsupervised because Grandpa was home, sick in bed with syphilis, and couldn’t work, so Grandma had to leave her children in the care of a young babysitter while she earned money to provide for the family. Grandpa convinced the young woman to get in bed with him, so the kids were on their own.
Daddy was sent away to stay with some relatives for a short while when he was about three, but he returned to his parents and they fruit tramped and camped out with other migrant families. Those were dangerous camps to grow up in.
When they did settle into a home Grandpa took off for extended periods of time, leaving Grandma and the kids to fend for themselves. They knew where he was, always the bars or the cathouses, but he wasn’t available to them. One time Grandma sent the older boys to the local tavern to tell Grandpa they’d been out of food for quite awhile and needed him. He showed up a few days later, backed his Army dump truck up to the house and raised the bed on it. He dumped dead ducks and geese all over the carport and yelled at the kids, “Go tell the ole sow to get out here and clean these things!” He drove off and went back to his “fun.”
The boys remember going with their dad to deliver wood when he was selling firewood for a living. Grandpa pulled up to the “colored cathouse,” and the madame came out and called him by first name. He went in to collect his payment in flesh while his young sons stacked the wood outside. Grandma often said that if you fired a shotgun into the colored section of town you were sure to hit ten of Grandpa’s children.
He was mean and let certain of the children know that he didn’t care for them any. He forced his oldest son to drink castor oil by the bottles for any and every reason.
His own father had been even worse. My dad remembered his grandpa lying in bed drunk all of the time and recalled that he was just plain mean. He’d give my 5 year old dad notes for the store to buy more liquor for him and all the while the old man would stay in bed and rape his own granddaughters. Family legend has it that his wife died at 32, leaving six babies, because when she became deathly ill, he refused to let her go to the doctor. That vile man raised his five daughters and infant son, my grandpa, alone.
My dad ran away from home by the time he was 12, hiring himself out to a local dairy and living in the barn with the cattle. My uncle had run away a few years earlier and has told me that anything was better than living at home in horrific poverty with his parents’ constant fighting.
Grandma divorced Grandpa after the kids were all raised. The horrible, prideful old woman who had given a baby away at age 16 and seemed to take delight in treating certain grandchildren with contempt wanted prestige and money, and she certainly wasn’t going to get it with him. With obvious distaste she told people, “H@&#$ has n____r in him!” The elitist old witch, with no reason to think she was anything at all, didn’t condemn him for his failure to provide for his family, for neglecting or abusing his children, or for cheating on her for over four decades. She thought the nastiest thing she could tell on him was that he had a creole heritage! As a child and young woman I truly hated my dad’s parents.
Every branch of our family is plagued with adultery, divorce, illegitimate births, substance abuse, and criminal activity. Every branch except one.
My one uncle chose something different for himself and his progeny. He married young, like his siblings, but he and his wife treated each other like they were best friends. They built businesses together. They literally built their first home together. He delights in telling how they collected river rock and carried it in the trunk of their car, using it to build the foundation of their first home. He brags that my aunt put the roof on the house when she was big pregnant. They always worked side by side in whatever business they were in. When a surgeon’s mistake caused a stroke, leaving her an invalid, my uncle brought his bride of 55 years home and took care of her himself, disregarding his own medical issues. He bathed her, took her to the bathroom, did her hair, cooked and cleaned, and bought special equipment to make her life as comfortable as possible. He even took her on trips in a motorhome, so she didn’t stagnate in the house. For seven years, until she died, he did it all with tenderness and joy.
Their daughter married young, like everyone else in the family, but she and her husband are still married and still treat each other with love and kindness. Their children, in turn, went away to college, not prison, and married nice young men who treat them with love and support and are actively involved fathers, sons, uncles, and cousins.
My daddy did the best he could without a toolbox. He really tried, and there were times he succeeded. It’s hard to build with no knowledge and no tools and one crippled hand. My uncle went out and found a toolbox and someone to build with him. He changed the legacy of adultery, divorce, illegitimate births, substance abuse, and criminal activity into a legacy of love. He changed the course of his line, for his line. He is living proof that abuse does not have to be a generational curse.